RELATIONS between London and Washington have been dealt a serious blow by the Clinton administration's decision to grant Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, a visa to visit the United States.
British officials say that the granting of a 48-hour visa to the leader of the Irish Republican Army's political wing, personally approved by Mr. Clinton on Sunday, came despite several days of intense lobbying by Washington-based British diplomats.
The diplomats had conveyed a request from Prime Minister John Major that the 20-year US ban on Adams be continued. The IRA - which supports joining Northern Ireland (a province of Britain) to the Irish Republic - has used violence to attempt to force British troops out of the province, where they have been since 1969.
Michael Mates, a former Northern Ireland minister in the Major government, said the decision was ``mystifying'' and ``an enormous publicity coup'' for Mr. Adams. ``It is exactly what he wants,'' Mr. Mates said. ``He wants to go on being able to procrastinate in order to put pressure on [Ireland and Britain] to make some more concessions before the killing stops.''
The move has been condemned by leaders of Northern Ireland's Protestant community, who accused President Clinton of an ``obscene'' decision that would facilitate the IRA's violent campaign to break Ulster free of British control.
Adams left for New York yesterday, where he is being allowed to attend a conference on Northern Ireland held by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. The Clinton administration said Adams cannot travel beyond New York and could stay a maximum of 48 hours.
A statement from 10 Downing Street said that issuing a visa was entirely a matter for the US government, but London officials privately expressed alarm at the Clinton decision.
``It is regrettable that Adams should be granted a visa before he has responded to the London and Dublin governments' peace proposals on Northern Ireland,'' a senior parliamentarian said. ``This appears to strike at the relationship between London and Washington.''
The British government is hesitating to make official criticisms of the US decision because last year it held its own secret contacts with Sinn Fein that led to peace moves currently being sponsored by London and Dublin.
Major remains publicly critical of Adams for refusing to denounce violence and commit Sinn Fein and the IRA to the pursuit of political power purely through the ballot box. British officials privately acknowledge, however, that the Sinn Fein leader heads a fragmented movement that is difficult to control, and he could lose influence over it if he condemned terrorism outright.
LAST week the US State Department said it would give Adams a visa if he renounced IRA violence and backed the Anglo-Irish peace plan for Northern Ireland.
Adams promised Thursday to ``go the extra mile'' for peace and that he abhorred all violence in Northern Ireland, whether by the IRA, British Army, or Protestant extremists.
``What I want to do - and this is a judgment from me - is to bring an end to the Irish Republican Army, be part of taking the gun totally out of Irish politics now,'' Adams said. But his statement stopped short of endorsing the Anglo-Irish peace plan.
Since last December's declaration on Northern Ireland by Major and Irish Premier Albert Reynolds, Adams has refused to endorse the document and has continued to call for ``clarification.''
Adams's arrival in New York was expected to coincide with a visit to Washington by Douglas Hurd, the British foreign secretary. The Foreign Office in London was tight-lipped, but government sources confirmed that a massive lobbying effort had gone into trying to prevent the Sinn Fein leader being granted a visa.
The British pleas were supported by the US State and Justice departments, and the FBI, according to these sources. In the past 20 years, eight visa applications by Adams have been rejected by the US.
London officials note that while Adams and Mr. Hurd are in the US, Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl will be visiting Washington. Successive British prime ministers have strived to preserve its ``special relationship'' with the US, which they perceive as central to their country's foreign policy goals.
Germany is seen as the country most likely to displace Britain in the US list of friends. A London official said: ``Mr. Clinton's decision will do nothing for his relationship with John Major.''
Northern Ireland's Unionist politicians erupted with anger at the news of the Adams visit. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, accused Clinton of ``bowing to a Roman Catholic lobby'' in the US.